Benaki – The Museum of Greek Culture

There is a perfect place for the museum-goers who are planning their first visit to the city of Athens. The place’s name is Benaki Museum and it is known as the Museum of Greek Culture.

Why Benaki Museum?

Whether you are coming to Greece for the very first time, or you have already spent many holidays on some of the zillions of islands before you decided to visit Athens, I can imagine you having many questions about the country itself.

The idea about Greece may vary from different points of view. While some people will associate it mostly with summer joys, others are fascinated with the ancient history. On the other hand, just a very few tourists will have a significant curiosity about the country’s modern history. But I think it definitely deserves some attention even if you are not a big history nerd.

Above all, Greece has thousands of years of history. Consequently, many different periods of time tell us so diverse stories. Researching about it may take years, but a visit to a good museum gives some key answers.

In conclusion, I strongly recommend the Benaki Museum for an introduction to the history of Greece. Although it is an art museum, it doesn’t focus on art itself as much as it shows art in the context.

Notice the mark on the floor – it is a reminder of social/physical distancing. The museum was not empty when I was visiting it, but it also didn’t have its usual amount of visitors. Masks were mandatory, and I felt more comfortable with it that I thought I would be.

Time Travel

At the Benaki Museum you will time-travel chronologically. Starting with prehistoric times, the journey goes through the earliest Hellenic cultures up to the Classical Antiquity. After that you will find the arts from Hellenistic, Roman, and Byzantine times, and understand the deep changes in styles and beliefs. It will not last long, as you will not get lost in countless of vitrines and items like it happens in some classical museum.

Instead, it will take you 5-10 minutes to observe each of the key historical periods, with quite comprehensive explanation on labels and online through the qr codes. The Benaki Museum also has a free wifi network. So, you don’t need to worry about spending any mobile data.

My Sketched Travels, Benaki Museum
I made a small experiment, trying to sketch these figures just on the paper. Making them “folded” for pottery must be much more difficult!

The visiting flow will lead your through the Greek culture in Ottoman times, and most importantly, the Greek Revolution / War of Independence. Again, the essential facts are provided though the museum’s collection. Watercolour paintings of ancient sites such as Acropolis represent some early heritage storytelling, from the time when there was no photography and mass media. Painters such as Johann J. Wittmer, Rudolph Muller, and Louis Dupre were some of the illustrators who made their travels “sketched travels” like I do today.

Benaki Museum - Cape Sounion
A “travel” watercolour painting of Cape Sounion

Lord Byron

The Art of Discovery never ends, and there are always more and more surprises to discover. Admittedly, I had forgotten some details of Lord Byron biography and the fact that he died in Greece. I once learned it at school and even read some works from the poet, especially what he wrote about Sintra (Portugal). However, I just didn’t remember well his role in the history of Greece.

The poet had a lavish lifestyle as he traveled for quite some extended periods of time. Strongly disagreeing with colonial mindsets such as the so-called Elgin marbles polemics, Lord Byron was a kind of a sustainable traveler of his time.

To sum up, long before single-used plastics became an issue, the great English poet was concerned about his wealthy compatriots stealing from archaeological sites.

During one of his visits to Cape Sounion, the place I called a “Sanctuary to the Sea”, he wrote about the place…

Place me on Sunium’s marbled steep,
Where nothing, save the waves and I,
May hear our mutual murmurs sweep…

Lord Byron, from The Isles of Greece
Lord Byron. Benaki Museum
Lord Byron wearing a traditional Greek costume. Painting by an unknown author.

Several years after his first visit to Greece, then in the Ottoman Empire, the Revolution broke out resulting in the Greek War of Independence. As a philhellene (a modern explanation for that word could be “a fan of Greece“) he joined the movement and donated some significant part of his wealth to the cause. As a result, the poet’s effort is today remembered and celebrated in Greece, as there are monuments and streets named after him.

Experience

Easy to find, the Benaki Museum main building is located on a walking distance of five minutes from the Syntagma square. It is just behind the Parliament building and the National Gardens. The museum is accessible to wheelchairs and baby strollers, through a lateral entrance.

The Museum’s shop and restaurant are of a very high quality. Located on the top of the building, the restaurant’s terrace offers a nice view and some great snacks and drinks. The shop offers a variety of simple souvenirs, high-end crafts, creative products, books, and quite a cool selection of toys.

Additionally, there are other buildings and collections that belong to the Benaki Museum, one of them being the Museum of Islamic Art.

For additional information, I recommend the Museum’s website. It contains a lot of quality information about the museum’s collections, buildings, and facilities. Tickets can be purchased online.

Benaki Museum
A glass of orange juice at the Museum’s cafe, to conclude the enjoyable visit.

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